Wrong Question: “Which is better: online degrees versus on-campus degrees?”

Stop comparing online degrees with on-campus degrees! They are different products. They are different experiences. They offer different value propositions to students. They are marketed and delivered differently. They are chosen for different reasons.

Asking “which is better: online degrees versus on-campus degrees?” is like comparing a bag and a wallet – though they share some functionality, you cannot fit your gym shoes, pajamas, and violin into a wallet. Similarly, on-campus degrees offer a long list of “outside-the-classroom” experiences that you cannot “fit” into an online degree. Online degrees and on-campus degrees are simply too different for comparison.

A Cheaper And More Accessible Product

BUT!, you might say, What about all those online colleges and programs that have appeared during the last two decades? Doesnt their growth signal change? Or, you might ask, Hasnt technology introduced the online alternative? Yes, technology was responsible for the development of online learning, with millions already having graduated with online college degrees. I use the word development, however, and not revolution, because online higher education did not replace the on-campus standard. Instead, a new category of cheaper and more accessible higher education was created.

Most of the online programs cater to the previously underserved. Online programs offered an education solution to those who were too busy (working) for the campus model and to those who couldn’t afford the campus model.

Cheaper is the key word. Technology provided a cheaper and more scalable alternative – hence its popularity. But, did it provide a better alternative? Better than living on campus? Better than going to sports games? Better than meeting new “lifelong” friends at your freshman dorm, in class, at the dining hall, at the intramural activity?

These questions are moot, because online offers no alternatives for any of these experiences.

Changing The Question: What About The Classroom Experience?

To continue with the bag and wallet analogy: though asking which is better doesn’t make much sense, it is sensible to ask which might do a better job holding cash and credit cards.

Instead of asking whether an online degree is better than an on-campus degree, why don’t we change the question to: Can the online classroom experience be better than a traditional classroom experience? The goal of both is quite similar, and both require some content delivery, and preferably some interaction.


Ive spent some time watching the Minerva seminar demo (https://minerva.kgi.edu/academics/seminar-experience) recently. Its real slick. It looks pretty. It looks functional. It looks fun!

Technologically, it is not groundbreaking. There are no complex adaptive systems involved–no robot teachers. The interface simply encourages and incentivizes the  “positive” interactivity roles of both the teacher and student. It also uses technology to effectively present and demonstrate content. It is not about automation, but about engagement and facilitation.

The Minerva demo looks supremely engaging, maximizing student-teacher and student-student communication, and leveraging technology-enabled collaboration.

Does it look better than a traditional classroom experience?

It certainly looks better than a big lecture. It might even look better than the consummate, liberal arts, round table seminar with a great professor.

I’m not jumping to the conclusion that it IS better. I haven’t tried it and haven’t seen any impartial studies (except for The Atlantic article on Minerva.) However, this does raise the very significant question:

If online classroom experience is better than on-campus classroom experience, then WHY “WALK” TO CLASS?